Nov 13 2012
I asked Inez Kelly if she would be interested in doing a post for Dear Author on her research into the use of prosthetics. She graciously responded to my request.
I don’t remember reading my first romance. I do, however, remember when I read my first romance that portrayed something other than the perfect hero. Joan Hohl wrote a loosely connected string of books, five of which are still on my keeper shelf today. My favorite, ONE TOUGH HOMBRE, featured Josh Barnet, a man with a prosthetic arm.
Despite this missing limb, he was sexy and tough, alpha and capable. The portrayal wasn’t pitying, it was enlightening. I suppose a seed of interest was planted. Since then, I’ve been drawn to books featuring a hero or heroine with a prosthesis.
One of my favorite historical romances is BOND OF BLOOD by Roberta Gellis. The hero, Cain, Lord Radnor, is the survivor of a set of twins and has a clubbed foot. Although he is powerful and masculine, he has to wear a specially designed “shoe” to walk. This birth defect, and the scorn of his father at such an imperfection, shaped his perception of himself throughout his life.
Perhaps in some way that prepared me for my own son. A premature twin, he was diagnosed with bilateral clubbed feet in utero. At the age of five hours and at less than three pounds, he was fitted for his first leg braces. They were made of tape and stiffened gauze because his skin was so delicate.
For over seven years, we dealt with daily apparatuses (such as braces, splints and casts), therapies and prejudices. We met with several instances of pity and condescension from others. We wanted him to be like Josh Barnet and Cain, Lord Radnor- capable despite his limitations. The word ‘cripple’ never was uttered in our home. Our attitude paid off and he never said “I can’t”. At age 8, he had corrective surgery and spent several weeks immobile and then in a wheelchair. Today, he plays baseball and climbs trees, rides a bike and kicks a ball.
When a romance character came to my mind who had a physical loss, I wasn’t daunted at all. But I was determined to learn all I could to get the nuances of the character correct, the mindset, the emotions toward his/her body, etc. I don’t find the research distasteful or morbid. To me, it’s a testament to the human spirit of never giving up.
I commented on an earlier article Jane posted dealing with a prosthetic arm, sharing some of the things I learned. She asked me if I’d be interested in writing an article discussing the history of prosthetics. So here I am again. (I could spend hours just talking about dental, facial and optical prosthetics. But I won’t.)
Prosthetics have been around nearly as long as man has. Human bodies are not infallible. They succumb to injury and disease. Disfigurement oftentimes damages the psyche more than the body but our spirit demands we continue living. Prosthetics are a way to regain control and reclaim what was lost.
Ancient Hebrew texts speak of women with golden and glass eyes. They were long thought to have been poetic license, but perhaps they were more fact than fantasy. A report published in 2006 by the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies documents the discovery of the 4,800 year old skeletal remains of a young woman in her early twenties with an artificial eye. Made of animal fat and tar and decorated with hair-like gold threads to simulate capillaries, the ‘eye’ was inserted into the socket. Such a device would only have been available to the very wealthy.
The Rigveda, compiled between 3,500 and 1,800 B.C. in India, is written in Sanskrit. It tells the tale of Queen Vispla, a warrior queen who had her leg amputated during battle. She had an iron leg created that allowed her to walk and to continue fighting. Can we call her the original Iron Lady? You can bet she kicked some ass!
History records the Ancient Egyptians as utilizing fiber and leather to fashion crude prosthetics as early as 4000 B.C. Bodies were often laid to rest with artificial limbs, legs and arms and even a severed penis replaced with a bronze one. Wouldn’t want the afterlife to be spent without the weenie, now would we? But the afterlife is for the religious arguments. Living with physical losses can be devastating.
In 2000, researchers unearthed an Egyptian mummified woman who wore a prosthetic big toe. Toes might seem like an unimportant body part to lose but walking without toes affects the legs, hips and spine. The big toe is vital to push off the ground and give the foot stability during standing. The discovered apparatus, made of wood and leather, is the earliest found device of its kind, approximately 3000 years old.
Written accounts of other early devices do exist, even if the devices themselves are lost. Around 500 B.C. Greek historian Herodotus recorded a Spartan prisoner who amputated his own foot to escape shackles then later fashioned a wooden foot for himself.
See the hints of a hero peeking through there?
Rather than for aesthetic reasons, the lower class or poorer segments of society often created for themselves a means to remain productive. For example, a stonecutter who lost a hand might fashion a limb that acted as a grinding tool, rather than one that looked life-like. This device would be strapped to his forearm with leather or animal tendons. It prolonged his usefulness and therefore prolonged his life and that of the family he provided for. This type of goal-oriented prosthesis reminds me of The Iron Duke characters.
War was and is ultimately the driving force behind most prosthetic needs. The more efficient the weapon, the worse the injury they cause. Throughout history, armor makers and, in many cases, blacksmiths were utilized to help hide amputations. This allowed the warrior to conceal a perceived weakness from an enemy as well as aided his self-perception as a ‘whole man’. Many times, such a device became a point not of shame but of strength. During the Second Punic War (218 to 201 B.C.), famed General Marcus Sergius had an iron hand fashioned to hold his shield and went on to win many more battles, escaping twice from infamous Hannibal Barca.
From bronze peg-legs to leather and wooden arms, various records prove amputation didn’t mean the end of life. Of course, one had to live through massive blood loss and pending infection first. War propelled the need for prosthetics but afterwards, when peace fell, the desire for BETTER prosthetics prevailed. It was no longer a matter of “fix it fast”, it was a case of “fix it right”. Or as right as technology of the day allowed.
Dear Author has previously shared information on German soldier Gotz von Berlichingen and French army ‘surgeon’ Ambroise Pare. Von Berlichingen’s pair of technologically advanced iron hands, made in 1508, were able to open and close by a means of fashioned ‘joints’. The precision was such that he could grasp a sword, a tankard or a feather quill. The idea of movable prosthetics was born.
Pare, although not a licensed doctor, re-invented the use of the ligature rather than cauterizing for amputations in the 1500s, reducing mortality and infection rates. This method became the standard procedure for war-time treatment and Pare is credited with raising the battlefield butchers to medical professionals.
The first documented amputee of the American Civil War was 18-year-old Confederate James Hanger. His leg, from approximately seven inches below the hip, was removed without anesthetic and on a barn door repurposed as a table by a Union doctor. He was given a straight wooden limb, essentially a peg-leg.
He became a prisoner of war and a cripple on the same day, the first day of his military career. Wouldn’t that make a fabulous dark background for a story?
When he was released to his family, Hanger locked himself in his room. The noise his wooden leg created when walking, as well as the discomforting fit, fueled him. Utilizing his pre-war training in Engineering from Washington College, he designed the first realistic-looking leg prosthetic with two movable joints, both knee and ankle. This double-articulated limb is still called a Hanger Limb. Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Foundation bears his name today.
After World War I, the medical field was overwhelmed by the severity of injuries to the face. Facial injuries are the most psychologically devastating type of disfigurement. Even when the full functions such as speech, sight and smell remain intact, the deformities cannot be hidden. One cannot hide a face as they can a lower leg. The world often shunned these survivors as monsters.
How many historical romance heroes sport a rakish facial scar? Those would most likely have been able to be reduced after WWI. But plastic and reconstructive surgery was in its infancy then and could only aid the superficially wounded. The gruesome wounds, the most disfiguring, could not be helped medically.
Francis Derwent Wood was a sculptor who enlisted at age 44 and was assigned as an orderly in a military hospital. Until this point, rubber prosthetics were used with minimal benefit. They smelled, they chafed, they fit poorly, they were hot, etc. For a missing nose, an unpainted tin triangle was often fashioned and tied around the head like a bandana. Wood found this distasteful and disrespectful of the human being. Along with American-born sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, Wood founded the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. The service became commonly called the ‘tin noses shop’.
(I think this would be a fascinating background for a story!)
The masks were made of extremely thin tin or galvanized copper, thinner than a sheet of paper at the time. Plaster casts were hand-carved and tediously molded to the soldier’s pre-injury look and the final metal product painted to match skin tone. Depending on if the mask was full-face or partial, the device was usually held on by spectacles, or eyeglasses, hooking around the ear. Details such as beards, mustaches and eyebrows were fashioned from real hair. These masks gave back life to the most horribly injured soldiers.
(Fair Use photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)
Today’s prosthetics are revolutionary and awe-inspiring. South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius wowed the world with his blade-like legs. Many even questioned if his prosthetics were better than normal legs and gave him an unfair advantage over non-handicapped competitors. Doesn’t that smack of JR Ward’s super-vampire series and Phury with his prosthetic leg kicking Lesser butt?
An Afghan girl, featured on Time magazine’s cover, had her nose and ears chopped off by her Taliban husband as punishment for attempting to flee. Her plight caught the attention of the world and, after relocation to the United States and intense therapy, she was given a prosthetic nose. Eventually, doctors hope to surgically recreate a nose and ears using cartilage, tissue and bone from her own body.
These are HUGE steps up from wooden peg-legs and hand-painted tin masks. However, amputation pain still exists, both real and phantom. The mind doesn’t always process that the limb is not there. Strides are being made to harness that mental denial and to use it to manipulate an artificial device more precisely.
At present, nerve-activated sensors can make a mechanical hand open and close, allowing fingers to move individually and grasp the smallest postage stamp. Suction devices help secure better fitting prosthetics and enable greater mobility. Glass eyes are specifically designed for each patient and can move in accordance with the surviving eye. Photo-optic research is underway to create a pupil that reacts to light, similar to the human eye, to help disguise the implant.
Writers need to embrace the idea of incorporating rapidly changing technology into their stories. It isn’t enough to have a contemporary character use out-dated prosthetics. It would be like having a modern character use a CB radio rather than a cell phone. An anachronism. Also, readers should be able to trust that an author has done his/her research and is portraying a realistic scenario, not one that was common 20-30 years ago or longer. With over 1.7 million prosthetic users in the United States alone, I believe it’s fair to say they read and deserve proper representation.
Prosthetics have changed over time but one thing hasn’t. The human spirit drives us to find the best possible solution to our problems. I don’t see prosthetic use as a ‘crutch’ but as a betterment. It takes perseverance, bravery and an element of stubbornness to continue and thrive when part of your body has been lost. To me, that heroic attitude should be celebrated, not condemned or pitied.
Human beings are more than the sum of their parts. If some parts are detachable or man-made, so what? The soul of the person hasn’t been diminished. If anything, they are made stronger by their ordeal. Who wouldn’t love that type of character even if there is some assembly required?
I’m still writing my story with the character who has a prosthesis. Wish me luck! Have you read a book you loved that had a character with a prosthesis? Share it with me. I love finding new reads.
Inez Kelley is a multi-published author of various romance genres. You can visit her at her website http://inezkelley.com/ Follow Inez on twitter at @Inez_Kelley or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/inez.kelley